July 12, 1983 – Christopher Gordon Blandford ‘Chris’ Wood (Traffic) was born June 24th 1944 in Birmngham, England, the son of Stephen, an engineer, and Muriel Gordon, a missionary’s daughter born and raised in China.
He had a sister, Stephanie Angela, 3 years younger than he. Chris showed an interest in music and painting from an early age. His father related, “He stood by the record player changing records since he was this tall”.
Self-taught on flute and saxophone, which he commenced playing at the age of 15, he began to play locally with other Birmingham musicians who would later find international fame in music: Christine Perfect (later Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac fame), Carl Palmer (ELP) , Stan Webb, and Mike Kellie(Spooky Tooth). Wood played with Perfect in 1964 in the band Shades of Blue and with Kellie during 1965-1966 in the band Locomotive.
At 15 Chris decided he was to become a flute player when he went to see the movie “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” and was very impressed by the flute in the Chico Hamilton band. At the same time he loved painting. He bought a flute and started to learn it by himself. He learned sax a bit later, by finding the fingering was pretty much the same. “The difference is in the contact the instrument makes with your body” he said once.
He started playing weddings at boozing clubs with local bands like Sounds of Blue with Christine Perfect (later McVie), Carl Palmer, Stan Webb, and Locomotive with Mike Kellie, who eventually wound up in Spooky Tooth.
Aged 18, Wood joined the Steve Hadley Quartet, a jazz/blues group in 1962. His younger sister Stephanie designed clothes for the Spencer Davis Group, based in Birmingham, and it was through her that Wood was first introduced to fellow Birmingham native Steve Winwood. They started jamming together. Steve apparently looked up to Chris as he was older and artier and very taken by several unusual interests, such as archeology, geology, bird-watching, and cartography. When Steve decided to form Traffic, he roped Chris in, and this helped made Wood decide to abandon his painting that saw him “wrapped up in my own world”.
Eventually in 1965 he attended the Royal College of Art and Technology in Stourbridge and went to the Royal Academy of Art with a grant. But as he admitted in an interview he was “not seeing the world”. It was then that he started jamming in Birmingham clubs like the Elbow Room where Steve Winwood often went after his shows with the Spencer Davis Group or when he was in Birmingham with friends. Steph Wood, his sister, introduced Steve to Chris as she knew Steve for she designed clothes and accessories for Spencer Davis.
At the age of 18, Winwood abandoned the Spencer Davis Group at the height of their popularity and, along with Wood, Capaldi, and Dave Mason, formed Traffic.
To focus his fledgling band, Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell arranged for the four to retreat to an isolated farmhouse on the Berkshire Downs near Aston Tirrold. Initially without electricity, telephone or running water, The Cottage (as it became universally known) was so remote that a generator had to be installed to power the group’s equipment. A concrete outdoor stage was built with the band’s stage equipment set up to overlook the surrounding fields. After six months honing their music, Traffic released their first single, “Paper Sun”.
In Traffic, Wood primarily played flute and saxophone, occasionally contributing keyboards, bass and vocals. Wood also co-wrote several of Traffic’s songs, particularly during the earlier period of the band’s recording career. His most notable contribution is as the co-writer (with Winwood and Capaldi), of “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.
Wood introduced the 17th century traditional song “John Barleycorn” to the band after hearing it on The Watersons album Frost and Fire. It became the title song of their 1970 album, “John Barleycorn Must Die.”
Chris was thus a founding member of Traffic and played on all 10 albums recorded by the original band.
In 1968 he took part in the Jimi Hendrix New York sessions and appeared on the album “Electric Ladyland” During the interim 1969 period when Steve split to join Blind Faith, Chris first joined the “Wooden Frog” project with Mason, Capaldi and “Frog” (Mick Weaver); then he toured the US with Dr. John’s band, where he met singer Jeanette Jacobs (formerly of the memorable 1960s girl group The Cake).
Wood and Jacobs married in November 1972, at Kensington Registry Office, when he was 28 and she was 22.
The couple played later in the first lineup of Ginger Baker’s Airforce (1970) which recorded a live album at the Royal Albert Hall. They were to separate in the late seventies and had no children.
In 1969, Wood also appeared on the eponymous second album of Free and the Small Faces’ The Autumn Stone. In 1970, Wood and his wife, along with Steve Winwood, joined Ginger Baker’s Air Force, releasing one album before reforming Traffic. Wood remained with Traffic from the time of its 1970 reformation until its 1975 breakup. Throughout Traffic’s life, Chris was also in demand as a session musician with his immediately identifiable flute or saxophone playing cropping up on albums by Rebop Kwaku Baah, Tyrone Downie, Fat Mattress, Gordon Jackson, Crawler, The Sky, Bobby Whitlock and others.
When Traffic split in November 1975, Chris was in poor health that already had messed up more than one concert during the band’s “When the Eagle Flies” tour the previous year, their last. He played as a session-man for a while. He appeared on the Crawler album in 1978. He had also played in John Martyn’s “Inside Out” album and on Small Faces’ “Autumn Stone”. He bought a recording studio in Birmingham where he played with younger musicians and worked for a long time on his solo album which was to be called Vulcan. He was never satisfied and his health stopped him more than once from completing it.
Through much of his life, Wood suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol, which were initially attributed to a fear of flying. Tortured by his wife’s serial infidelity while immersing himself in musical experimentation, Chris turned to more drink and drugs for solace. When a liver disease was identified, indulgences were stopped, though the medication produced even more devastating effects that most people (and even close friends) wrongly interpreted – none knowing the internal agony Chris was living with. His wife Jeanette, from whom he had separated, died in 1982, at the age of 30, from the effects of a seizure. Wood was profoundly affected by her death, as well as the death of two close friends, Free’s Paul Kossoff and former band-mate Rebop Kwaku Baah.
While working on a solo album that was to be titled Vulcan, Wood died of pneumonia at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England on July 12, 1983.
Material for the album had been recorded over the previous few years, mostly in London at Island’s Hammersmith Studio – The Fall Out Shelter with engineer Terry Barham – as well as Pathway Studios in London. Following Wood’s death, the Vulcan recordings remained in the possession of Wood’s sister, Stephanie.
• In 2008, with the consent of Stephanie Wood a CD titled Vulcan, consisting of selected material Wood recorded while working on the incomplete album (plus an unreleased Traffic live performance of one of Wood’s compositions), was released by Esoteric Recordings.
• Traffic recorded one additional studio album, Far from Home (1994), after Wood’s death. The album is dedicated to him, and the central figure on its front cover is a stick figure of a man playing flute.
• In June 2013, on Wood’s 69th birthday, an announcement was made by The Chris Wood Estate (run by his sister, Stephanie) that a commemorative box-set is being prepared – in collaboration with contemporary music archivists HiddenMasters – that will for the first time ever, properly honour Wood’s life in music. Among other music, the set will include the album Vulcan as Chris originally sequenced it in 1978.